MIAMI -- For a company that built its name on selling fruits and vegetables straight from the farm, Norman Bros. Produce is spending a lot of time nurturing its meal business these days.
What's a produce specialist doing chasing the home-meal-replacement dollar? Norman Bros. officials consider HMR a natural outgrowth of its aim to please -- and right now, the customers want a hefty helping of prepared foods.
In its salad days, this single-unit operation was an on-farm, fresh-produce store. As recently as 1980, its only value-added product was fresh-squeezed fruit juice. Norman Bros. now considers itself a fresh-foods specialty store, and its impressive, upscale meals menu includes the likes of chef-made beef stroganoff and grouper romano.
The ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat items, produced in the 17,000-square-foot store's state-of-the-art kitchen, are selling at a rate that's pleasing the company's owners too, officials said.
The meals business first took root in Norman Bros.' psyche years ago, when the meat department introduced stuffed chicken breast that was ready to cook.
"Customers loved it. It only takes one to get it started. From then on, the more items of that type we could give them, the more they bought," said Suann Suggs, general manager at Norman Bros.
More recently, busy customers began to look for something to go with the value-added meat, she added. "We saw that as people bought the ready-to-cook meats, they'd pick up things like our charcuterie salads and stuffed potatoes to go with it. Then they'd have a meal. They didn't seem to mind cooking the meat, but they didn't want to do all the other stuff."
Variety is the key to keeping customers interested and buying, she stressed. A large expanse of case devoted to value-added meat now offers everything from marinated kabobs to steak and cheese pinwheels.
But the most recent sales boom is in ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat meal components. A small hot table, featuring different entrees and sides each day, came next after the value-added meats. Last fall, the company introduced Gourmet to Go, a program featuring chilled, packed-up, prepared meal components in an 8-foot, four-tiered case.
Sales of kitchen-prepared items -- which include the hot table, Gourmet to Go and salads in the service case -- have soared to between 15% and 20% over the same period last year, kitchen manager Tim Linton told SN.
Linton gives much of the credit for that to the new Gourmet to Go program. Now, he expects a rotating menu that lists what will be available in the case a week ahead to help ratchet sales up another 15% by this time next year.
Since the week-ahead menu was just added this month, it's too soon to tell to what degree it's affecting sales, Linton said.
"Developing a menu cycle takes a long time because, first of all, we want to use all fresh ingredients," he said, harking back to the freshness that the company's reputation has been built on.
"We also need to have a chicken, a meat, a fish and vegetable dish each day, to appeal to a broad range of customers," he added. The company has a repertoire of 200 some recipes it is drawing from. "We get recipes from all kinds of places. The turkey schnitzel is a family recipe. Our new chef brought some and I'm very good at duplicating a recipe just from tasting something."
In the name of variety, the chilled, packaged items featured on the menu are different from what is offered each day on the hot table. "It's another way to have more variety," said general manager Suggs.
There's an operational reason as well for maintaining a distinction between the two meals programs. Linton said he does his own buying for the Gourmet to Go program. On the other hand, he acquires the raw materials for the hot-table entrees from the meat and seafood department, and their availability for kitchen use is governed by how the day's sales went in those departments. Thus, the selection of items for the hot table cannot be planned far in advance, Linton said.
Even so, there is one hot-table item -- turkey meat loaf -- that has become such a customer favorite it has earned a spot every single day on the hot table. "And I make plenty of it. If I run out of turkey meat loaf, I'd better run and hide," said Linton.
As SN interviewed Linton, he looked at a recent day's sales figures and said, "We sold seven 5-pound turkey meat loaves in one day." That was on top of 17 pounds of flounder fillet, 20 pounds of chicken parmigiana, 20 pounds of chicken with spinach and feta cheese, 5 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of red-skin potatoes, and more.
The big winner, however, is the self-service Gourmet to Go case, which is turning 300 entrees a day, many of them main-dish salads like grilled-salmon Caesar, he said.
Norman Bros. is situated in a suburb of Miami in the midst of other commercial operations. "There are a couple of big garden centers right across the road from us and a hospital down the road," Suggs said.
Linton pointed out that the customer profile at Norman Bros. "goes all across the board," covering various buying patterns and income-levels including hospital personnel, affluent older people and business people.
He said he believes the customers at the self-service case are the same ones who shop the hot case. "We have a lot of doctors and nurses come in and buy lunch at the hot counter and then pick up dinner from the refrigerated case," he said.
Suggs pointed out that sales at both the hot and refrigerated cases are skewed toward lunchtime. "If they have any kind of refrigerated storage at all, they'll pick up dinner at lunchtime and keep it in the office, rather than stop again after work," she said.
She also pointed out that all kitchen-prepared items are selling well, including the charcuterie salads. "We've increased our salad varieties from 18 to 28," she said.
Suggs particularly thinks the week-ahead menu will be a boon to sales. Right now it's posted on a chalkboard, but will soon be printed and handed out at counters and at the cash registers.
The Gourmet to Go menu, she said, will "definitely increase the sales because people can look and see that we're having, for example, herb-crusted salmon next Tuesday, and they'll decide they'd rather have that than cook. Or it'll remind mom that on soccer night, she can pick up something for everybody."
Suggs added that now mom can even let her family know what the choices are, so they can think about them and choose ahead of time.
Some of the chilled meals are packed with a side dish or two side dishes, and some components are packed separately. "Shrimp parmigiana, for example, might be packed with linguine and that's fine, but the customer might want a vegetable too, or a stuffed potato. They'll find those in the Gourmet to Go case also," Linton said.
While most of the items are entrees or entrees with one side, everything in the case is priced by the pound. The herbed salmon and the linquine or rice that goes into the package with it are weighed separately as they're put into the package, Linton said. The department's computer then calculates the sticker price.
"We do that because the Department of Consumer Services here watches over everything. I don't want a customer ever to feel that they've been short-changed on amount," Linton said.
He said it's part protection for Norman Bros., and part protection for the customer. "For example, we try to get the entree as near 3 or 4 ounces as we can" so that every customer picking up a particular variety of entree will get about the same amount, Linton explained. But because it's difficult to make the portions exactly uniform, prices per package can differ as much as 50 cents, he added.
All Gourmet to Go items are made from scratch in-store, as is the hot-table fare. Linton said the company would not consider supplementing its prepared foods with items sourced from outside. He said that would go against the grain of what Norman's is all about.
Rather than adding products sourced elsewhere, Norman Bros. has taken specific steps to build a foundation for expanding its on-site cooking.
As part of a remodel and expansion that added 6,000 feet to the store in 1996, the company tripled the size of its kitchen to its present 1,200 square feet and repositioned it so it's "within steps" of the prepared-foods display cases.
The proximity of the kitchen and associates there is good for image and for sales volume, there's no doubt, but it could also be a factor in profitability. For instance, Suggs pointed out that the closeness of the Gourmet to Go display case to the kitchen is a help in keeping the case stocked at all times.
"Yesterday, for example, salads from that case were selling like crazy and we could see that right away, that we needed to make more of them and get them out there," Suggs said, adding that that kind of quick reaction would be an impossibility for a big supermarket chain.
And Linton explained how the kitchen's quick reaction to what's happening on the hot table can maximize sales.
The hot table, operated from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., is constantly replenished throughout the day and a slow mover doesn't get to stay very long, Linton said.
"We always have back-up trays ready. That works for quickly replacing one that's sold out, but it also works when something isn't selling. If a product, maybe one that we're just trying out, doesn't go fast enough, we'll toss it and replace it with a tray of something else," he said.
Last fall, the company hired chef Tano Bourginon away from Miami Beach's Hotel Fontainebleu, where he had been banquet chef for seven years.
"We got him just before Thanksgiving, just in time for the holidays," Linton said, adding that Norman Bros. does a tremendous business in holiday dinners.
The expansion and repositioning of the kitchen and the hiring of Chef Tano were a necessary first step to expanding the prepared foods into the distinct Gourmet to Go program. Linton pointed out that the expansion was in response to what customers have said they want. While the company has done no formal market research, there is always interaction between employees and customers, he said.
"We listen to our customers, and we respond to them," Linton said.
Responsive change is not new to the retailer. Owner David Nelson added fresh-fruit milkshakes shortly after he bought the store in 1980 from the Norman brothers, who had farmed the land the market sits on; then in 1982, a seafood department was added; in 1983, a meat department; and in 1984, a bakery.
Each stage of evolution was customer-driven, Suggs told SN. "People have told us from the beginning that we have great produce, but they said they could not get good seafood in the area. So we began to sell seafood; then meat, and later bakery. It's all been customer-driven."
Suggs now sees strong growth ahead for the home-meal replacement category, and said Norman Bros. will keep responding to meet customers' needs. "This is not a fad. It's not going to go away. In fact, consumers are going to just demand more and better," Suggs said.
So far, the company has done little promoting of its prepared foods outside the store. It has limited its outside efforts primarily to showing off its fare at charitable events in the community, Linton said.
"We supply food at a lot of fund-raisers and we make sure people know where the food came from. Just recently there was a fund-raiser at the zoo where we served shrimp and scallop cerviche and we told people they could get it in our Gourmet to Go case at the store."